An unlikely star on the Eagles’ 2017 defense? Brandon Graham says not to count it out
PHILADELPHIA –The Eagles’ splashiest moves and quickest free agent additions this offseason helped reshape their offense, but defensive end Brandon Graham isn’t worried about the relative inactivity on his side of the ball.
Graham admits Philly’s defense needs to make significant strides in 2017 after the unit’s success petered out down the stretch of last year’s 7-9 campaign. And he isn’t assuming the Birds will draft a franchise-altering talent in the NFL draft next week.
The eighth-year pass rusher, though, said he’s been around the NFL long enough to know that sparkling rookies or notable acquisitions aren’t always the key to improvement.
Sometimes, the boost comes from in-house. And Graham’s confident that someone on the Eagles’ defense will emerge as an unlikely star.
He’s just not sure who that guy is yet.
“I feel like someone that’s been here, that we not thinking about, is going to step up,” Graham said. “Every year, there’s a guy in Year 2 or Year 3 that kind of gets it.”
It’s that player who’ll transform Philadelphia’s defense and help it sustain the dominant play from the early parts of the 2016 season, Graham said.
The former Michigan star’s hunch is bred partly from past experience. It was Graham, after all, who ascended from potential backup to second-team all-pro last season, enjoying a breakout campaign seven years into a trying career.
So, when Graham looks at teammates who’ve underwhelmed in recent seasons — players like Marcus Smith and Vinny Curry — he begins to envision their startling successes.
“I’ve been through that,” Graham said. “A lot of guys didn’t think I was going to pan out. It’s all about how hard those guys work in a year. What people can do in a year, man, it’s amazing sometimes with the mindset of just going out there and working hard.”
Curry and Smith are logical candidates to justify Graham’s belief.
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Smith, a 2014 first-round pick, still hasn’t started an NFL game after his physical traits had scouts salivating while he was at Louisville. In three professional seasons, Smith’s totaled just five sacks, and glimpses of his potential have been more rare than encouraging.
But the size and speed are still there.
“It could be Marcus, because I see how hard he’s worked,” Graham said.
And the Eagles already placed faith in Curry, though their financial gamble showed early signs of backfire. Curry, 28, signed a five-year contract worth more than $47 million last offseason, before he settled into a backup role and notched just 2.5 sacks during the year, well shy of his career-high of nine.
Curry’s likely to compete with veteran newcomer Chris Long for a starting job this fall. If he doesn’t win it, the Birds’ hefty investment in the speedy defensive end will appear more unwise than it already does.
Like Smith, Curry has an eye-opening skill set. His first step off the line is electric. He just has to find a semblance of consistency before he developes into a player worthy of his contract.
“Vinny’s been working real hard,” Graham said. “He’s looking leaning, he’s looking ready. His mindset is already a lot different than last year. You know, just going into it with a positive attitude, and I think he’s going to make that leap that we’ve all been waiting for, and that he’s been waiting for.”
Perhaps Curry emerges as a fearsome pass rusher to give the Eagles one of the NFL’s best pairs of defensive ends. Smith could improve and provides the team unparalleled depth at the position.
Or maybe another young player — cornerback Jalen Mills? Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan? — soars into star status to give the Birds’ defense some extra oomph.
Of course, those players could all flop, leaving Philly primed for more glaring struggles this fall.
Whatever the case, Graham said he’ll have a better idea of how the season will play out when training camp arrives this summer and the team slides into shoulder pads for the first time. For now, he’s comfortable with his declaration that someone on the defense will surprise pundits and fans with a career-best season.
“Once we get to camp, we really see that flash of who is going to be that guy, because everybody looks good in OTAs,” Graham said. “But camp is when you can really see what people’s mindset is going to be for the year — are they going to quit or are they getting tired? Are they going to be the same they was last year? Are they going to be complacent doing the same things they did last year?
“You can just tell what some people do after practice and what some people do during practice, so I’m just waiting to see who that guy is going to be.”